The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Reality kids

Too many children are moving from contest to television contest, egged on by parents and prize money

The Dream Merchants, a reputed modelling agency and grooming school in Calcutta, has stopped taking in children below 15 for their grooming workshop. “There’s too much pressure from parents. Boys and girls, especially in their teens, lose focus as well as innocence unless they have strong parental guidance. We have decided to include those above 15, who have cleared their Class X board exams.”

As contests and reality shows boom on television, India looks like a nation of aspiring children. Literally, too. Children with gelled or spiked hair, pancake slapped on their faces and singing of lost love are all over the small screen. From Bengal, and the city, known for their musical talent, the stream of these minor contestants is steadily growing. Some children are having a tough time.

Booming database

One reason is the way parents are looking at their children. The Dream Merchants has a folio of nearly 1,200 children between 1 and 18 years. “A child was forced to come to a shoot by her parents in spite of a high temperature and having an exam the next day. We asked the mother to take her home, but she stayed on. They feel it’s the best way to make their kids smarter and ready with an alternative career,” says Sanchita Kushari Bose, grooming expert who owns The Dream Merchants.

Smilestone, an advertising and event management company in Calcutta, screens children between 9 months and 13 years on the basis of “photogenic face, camera consciousness and natural character”. The selected children find a place in their database comprising more than 600 names and are later groomed through workshops.

Big li’l champs

The parents of Sanchita Bhattacharya, who won Li’l Champs on Zee, run a music school in Howrah, where they live. “There has been a significant rise in the number of students after Sanchita won the contest. They want to be trained like her so that they can become good performers and participate in school, social functions or talent hunt contests,” says her mother.

Abhrokanti, who ended among the top four at Li’l Champs on Zee TV, is another example, for parents and children: he has done well and now wants to be a doctor. Or Aashna and Rishi, who won Hungama TV’s John Aur Kaun and won, a contest that drew a lakh children from across the country. The two will feature in a film with John Abraham and have bagged a scholarship of Rs 5 lakh and a three-year contract with UTV.

Fear factor

But Smilestone has an expert panel to assess a child’s aptitude, aware that he may not have wanted it at all. “We have a clinical psychologist on our panel who analyses the child’s drawbacks and their fears in case of parental pressure. Most of the children are brought in by parents who want to force their children into the limelight. So we find it necessary to figure out the child’s inclination,” says Sandeep Shah, CEO. He faced angry parents storming into his office when their children did not fare well in contests.

Too many lives

Bouquet of contests
old and current
• Boogie Woogie on Sony TV —
Dance contest with children specials like Chhote Ustad and Super Hero Kids
• Rin Mera Star Superstar on Star
• ParleG Hungama TV Captains’ Hunt on Hungama TV
• John Aur Kaun on Hungama TV
• The Little Pincess Hunt on Disney
• Saregamapa Li’l Champs on Zee TV
• Chhota VJ Hunt on Nickleodeon
• Kaboom on Star
• Mum Tum Aur Hum on Star

For every Abhro or Aashna, there are hundreds who couldn’t make it. Who are they' They form an army of kids flitting between a career and childhood, between too many things. Because these days, a degree is as important.

Parag Bhatnagar, 13, who had won the Sony Cadbury Bournvita Confidence Champion Gold Award in 2005, made it to the top 10 on Pogo’s Amazing Kids in 2005 as a story-teller. But didn’t win. “Parag was disappointed for a while but not discouraged. He is keen on giving it a better shot next time,” assures Mitali Bhatnagar, Parag’s mother. Parag has appeared in a number of television commercials and also acted in Aparna Sen’s 15, Park Avenue as Waheeda Rahman’s grandson. An avid tabla player, he also sketches and takes part in story-telling competitions. And he wants to be a scientist and carries his textbooks to the shoot.

Variety programme

He keeps on, like Paulomi Saha, training in classical and Nazrulgeeti since three. Her mother informs that she also comes first in class. But for Paulomi, studies are secondary. “I want to be a singer,” she declares. She was eliminated from Zee Bangla’s Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Wah Juniors in the first round, but is undeterred. She left a reputed school to join a “para” school where studies won’t hamper her music, she says. “She participated in the Rin Mera Star Superstar contest too. But at the finals they only chose dancers, that’s why she lost,” says her mother. Oindrila Das, a high school student contesting Zee Bangla’s Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Wah Juniors, wants to win the competition at any cost. Sanchita is her role model. “Look at the kind of mileage she got. In these competitions it is very important to make yourself heard,” she says.

For some, it has been a journey of many years. Tamanna, 25, who performed at para functions from childhood, reached the top four at Golden Voice on Zee Bangla. “Mithun Chakraborty told me that I had competed with much more trained people.” She now wants to compete at the national level.

Tear factor

Some others just can’t stay away. Jhalak, a.k.a. Princey, was the light-eyed kid in Kal Ho Na Ho. Now a student of Class V, she is taking a break from movies, but can’t from TV. In Calcutta to take part at the Cadbury Bournvita Confidence Academy, she said such reality shows “gives me a chance to be myself on screen.”

No wonder there is so much crying before the camera . “We have a lot of tears to deal with when children lose. The reality involving them is a lot different and difficult to deal with than other reality shows,” says Aparna Bhosle, vice president of programming, Hungama TV. “Parents tend to be a little too demanding at times and that is probably because they love living their dreams through their children.”

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